Playing for third?

Heading into today's game at South Carolina, Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl apparently is conceding the top two spots in the SEC's Eastern Division to fifth-ranked Florida and 19th-rated Kentucky.

"I think South Carolina knows, as we do, that we are battling for that third and fourth spot in the SEC East," Pearl said recently.

Even if the Vols and Gamecocks are battling for third place, today's match-up should be interesting. The Vols lead the conference in scoring at 85.1 points per game, while the Gamecocks lead the league in scoring defense at 59.9 ppg. Carolina's opponents are shooting a mere 39.1 percent from the field.

"Dave Odom does a terrific job," Pearl said of Carolina's head coach. "They are a very athletic team, similar to us in that they like to run and press. It should be an entertaining game."

Like Tennessee, Carolina's top two scorers are guards. Tarence Kinsey, a 6-6 player whose last-second 3-pointer beat St. Joseph's in the NIT title game last March, averages 15.6 points per game. Tre' Kelley, who stands 6-1, chips in 11.3 points and 3.2 assists per game. The Gamecocks' three-guard lineup also features 6-3 Rocky Trice, who averages 6.8 points per game.

Carolina, which brings a 9-4 record into the game, also starts two post players – 6-11 Brandon Wallace (8.2 points, 6.5 rebounds) and 6-8 Renaldo Balkman (11.0, 6.5).

Tennessee also has a guard-oriented lineup that relies heavily on top scorers Chris Lofton (16.7 ppg) and C.J. Watson (16.4). Major Wingate (12.1 ppg) is the primary inside threat.

Though generally pegged for mediocrity coming off a 14-17 season in 2004-05, the Vols are one of the surprise teams in college basketball this season. Their 9-1 record includes an upset of nationally ranked Texas. Even Pearl has learned not to underestimate his unsung but scrappy players.

"I have learned that these guys want to win," he said. "They have been very willing to adapt and play unselfishly. I think we have come out every night ready to play. We had a lot of different things thrown at us."

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